Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games

The central conceit of The Hunger Games is this: In a post-apocalyptic future America, every year 24 teenagers are taken from each district and brought to the capitol to fight a battle to the death for the entertainment of the public. The winner receives lifelong riches. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, comes from the poor mining District 12, and we see the experience through her eyes. However, since the story is told in the first person, we know that she survives. (Because no rhetorical trick to arrange things otherwise would be convincing.)

Fundamentally, The Hunger Games is a suspense novel, colored by Katniss’ experiences on her journal. The novel sets up the status quo in her own district, and then upends her life when she’s selected for the Games. Katniss feels very deeply about some things, like her mother and sister, but beyond those things she’s very rational and thoughtful, to the point that she has trouble picking up on certain emotional cues from others, and then reacts violently when she’s surprised, as happens several times in the book. On the other hand, her ability to reason serves her well in the arena once the games begin, and her fundamentally good heart wins her some friends and allies.

What Collins does which lifts The Hunger Games above other YA fare that I’ve read is that some plot developments are telegraphed pages ahead of time, but you realize that it’s only going to make thing worse – worse for Katniss, worse for someone she cares about, or worse for everyone. Or that she’s been backed into a corner so although she technically has a choice, she doesn’t really have a choice. It’s a suspense novel, and there’s the constant worry that things are going to get worse, and might not ever get better.

So, the novel is about Katniss’ resilience in the face of despair, in the face of overwhelming odds. Not for nothing is the signature aphorism in the book, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” Almost designed to appeal to statistically-minded fans of modern sports, the saying ironically notes that any edge you gain is so small in the Hunger Games as to be almost meaningless, even if it might be vital to survival.

What the book forces Katniss to do is to recognize what’s really important to her. Certainly she’s been caring for her family since the death of her father in a mine cave-in when she was young, but she has to move beyond that: Fighting for her own survival isn’t enough, there are other things to care about as well. Friendships she makes in the arena, the unjustness of the Games themselves, and knowing how far she’s willing to go to survive.

It’s easy to see why The Hunger Games is popular: Katniss is a capable, clever and thoughtful young woman, but she’s also awkward and lacks self-confidence in many areas, so she both stands in as a model of wish fulfillment, and as a person the reader can relate to in her uncertainties. She’s hard when she needs to be, empathetic when she wants to be, and not perfect on either count. In a more nuanced way than Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen is someone the reader wants to be (without going through the ordeal of the Games, of course).

The world is very well realized, too; I expect it will be better fleshed out in the other two books in the trilogy, but there’s not much left wanting for the purposes of the story in this first book. And the setting and execution of the Games themselves is very well done. Perhaps the conflict falls apart a bit at the end – the climactic showdown is sidestepped in an awkward manner – and the denouement feels a little rushed (though it sets up the first act of the second book, which I’m already reading), but those are quibbles.

As adventure, as character drama, as gets-you-squirming-in-your-seat suspense, The Hunger Games is a resounding success. I’m not sure why it took me this long to read it.

Five Weapons #7

Five Weapons #7, by Jimmie Robinson, Image Comics, February 2014

Five Weapons #7 Five Weapons is the latest project by writer/artist Jimmie Robinson, who’s best known for the superhero satire Bomb Queen (which wasn’t my thing), and earlier for his science fiction adventure Amanda and Gunn (which I love and highly recommend). Five Weapons falls somewhere between those two series in tone, being a cleverly-plotted cliffhanger-driven drama, but with a quirky setting and regular doses of humor (some of which deliberately clashes with the more serious material). There’s not much quite like it on the market today.

Five Weapons began life as a 5-issue limited series (collected), which I’ll now summarize – though since it ends with a plot twist, I’ll talk around that as best I can: Tyler Shainline is admitted to a private academy for aspiring assassins, on the strength of being the son of a famous assassin. The school focuses on skills with five different weapons, and the students are grouped into clubs around the weapons; Tyler is pressured into choosing to join a club. You’d expect that the series would show Tyler gaining mastery of all five weapons, but in fact he is a pacifist and refuses to fight with any weapon. The series’ formula is one of showdowns with the five club leaders, each issue ending on a cliffhanger where one wonders how Tyler is going to win this fight without actually fighting. Tyler is in fact at the school on a mission, which he completes at the end of the series, earning the respect of some of the other students. But, since he doesn’t actually plan to become an assassin, he leaves the school.

The ongoing series starts with issue #6, where our hero returns to the school, this time as a medic training under the school’s doctor. However, one of the other students has a grudge against him and sets out to destroy his reputation and get him expelled. The two issues since still end on a “how’s he going to get out of this one cliffhanger”, but we no longer have confidence that he’s going to overcome his enemy, who’s about as clever as he is. This issue has him working out of one fix, learning some surprising things about a few of the adults, and then getting into another jam on the last page.

While written in a straightforward, grounded manner, the setting of Five Weapons is bizarre, sometimes even surreal. There are several characters whom one might characterize as stereotypes, for example the teacher who heads the archery club, who is an American Indian (“Ms. Featherwind”). But for me, the weird thing – as you can see from the cover I’ve reproduced here, is that she has an arrow through her head, and a big target covering the left side of her head. It’s like something from a Batman or Avengers episode from the 60s, an affectation that doesn’t make much sense but sure looks weird. Characters in the series are full of this kind of thing, some of which are explained (the doctor is missing her nose and wears a bandage around her head to cover where it would be), some not.

Additionally, for a school for assassins there isn’t a whole lot of assassinating going on, and there are a lot of students attending. The story alludes to missions that some of the adults have run, but there’s a general feel of “don’t look too closely at how this place fits into the world at large”. You’d think it would take a special kind of sociopath (or psychopath) to become an aspiring assassin as a teenager, but these kids don’t really show it.

Indeed, I find the book enjoyable because the main character and his closer friends are all pretty easy to relate to. And because the cliffhangers in the story are enjoyable brain-teasers. Robinson’s artwork is also quite strong, especially in his characters’ distinctive faces and expressions; it’s a long way from superhero comics. Yet the colors are bright and cheerful, also cutting against what would seem to be grim subject matter.

It’s hard to tell whether Robinson has a long-term plan for the series, as the initial arc – presumably intended to stand on its own – felt complete in itself. Some notional 50-issue storyline would also seem out of place for this series, but we’ll see. Its internal artistic conflicts are part of what appeals to me about it; it’s got such a strong identity, yet that identity seems almost self-consciously fragile. Probably I’m overanalyzing it, as the overall feel is one of narrow escapes from danger in the most fun, adventuresque ways.

Neil Gaiman: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Despite being one of his shortest novels, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is in some ways the quintessential Neil Gaiman novel. An unnamed narrator in England returns to his childhood neighborhood following a funeral, visits the house of a girl he knew, and recalls the events of four decades earlier, the adventures the two of them shared over the course of a few days when he was a boy of seven and she a girl of eleven. The girl, Lettie Hempstead, and her mother and grandmother (Mrs. Hempstead and Old Mrs. Hempstead) have a pond in the back yard of their farm, which is at the end of the lane where the narrator lived. Lettie calls it her ocean, and says that the three of them travelled across it when she was much younger. The narrator is a bookish, lonely lad who has had several degrees of tragedy visited upon him shortly before he meets her, but after a man dies near the Hempstead farm, he learns that the Hempsteads have connections to exotic, impossible lands. A moment’s lapse in judgment (or perhaps bravery) causes our narrator to become the focus for a dark entity which bedevils his neighborhood and which he and the Hempsteads have to get rid of.

There’s no doubt that the narrative is powerful: The pitfalls and tragedies which befall our hero in the first few chapters are keenly felt – so much so that the book is at times a hard read, because it’s really not pleasant. The book after that is a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs. Gaiman’s storytelling is always arresting, and this short book is crisply paced and pulls you along. It’s the first book in a while that I’ve read in a single day.

Still, Ocean also has many elements which frustrate me about Gaiman’s work, and they largely come down to the vagueness of the setting and communication of the ideas. The narrator is nameless, his background murky. He’s not a total cipher, but it’s very difficult to connect to him; rather, he’s a vessel for event around him, rarely acting, and if anything his actions are often bad decisions which sometimes work out and sometimes go wrong.

Likewise, the Hempsteads and their larger world are left vague, with hints dropped about who they are (I infer they’re an incarnation of the Moirai, whom Gaiman has used in The Sandman), but with connections to other lands, their own apparently no longer existing. But what it all means, and what they can do, is only hinted at. Gaiman’s stories are often trying to evoke myth, legend and folklore, and while I don’t expect every last thing to be explained, Ocean leaves too much to the imagination for my satisfaction.

The story is a fun read, but the ending feels empty. The narrator doesn’t seem to have substantially changed – because the story isn’t about him. It’s not about anyone, really; it’s about moods, and settings, and a series of events, but the emotional impact of the resolution doesn’t come close to matching that of the set-up.

Gaiman is a consistently enjoyable novelist, but American Gods remains his only novel I’d call “great”. I have no doubt that books like Ocean are exactly the books he wants to write, but I always feel like they need more development to feel really satisfying. Perhaps it’s the short length of Ocean drives that home particularly well. To be sure I enjoyed reading it, but after finishing it I was surprised at how slight it felt in hindsight.

Rat Queens #4

Rat Queens #4, by Kurtis J. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch, Image Comics, January 2014

Rat Queens #4 Rat Queens is one of a smattering of (seemingly) Dungeons & Dragons inspired comics I’ve read recently. It bears some similarity to Guilded Age in that both of them focus on what happens when a band of adventurers who make their living off of fighting and plundering tries to integrate into civilized society.

In this story, the four women who make up the Rat Queens are one of several groups who draw the ire of the town’s leaders due to their drinking, carousing, and property damage. After being thrown in jail the groups are assigned “community service” in the form of being sent to clear out some nasty folks in the vicinity. But the groups find they’ve been set up to fail (and die); some groups don’t make it, but the Queens do and set out to find out who’s behind it.

The story’s told with a modern sensibility, including modern language and cursing, and a lot of it is also told with tongue firmly in cheek. But it’s still a lot of fun, and often laugh-out-loud funny, so it hooked me from the start. This issue features Betty the Hobbit thief (did I mention it’s D&D inspired?) finding out who set them up, leading to a showdown, and then another showdown as the ramifications of their adventures come home to roost. It’s a lot of fighting, much of it pretty bloody, but if you can deal with that stuff it’s also entertaining and humorous.

Writer Kurtis J. Wiebe is probably best known for Peter Panzerfaust, a World War II era tale that takes its cues from Peter Pan, but so far I think Rat Queens is the better book of the two, with more humor, better-defined characters, and more structure to its story. I also prefer the art of Roc Upchurch here to that of Tyler Jenkins on Panzerfaust; Upchurch’s style reminds me a lot of that of Fiona Staples (currently getting rave reviews for Saga), but I like Upchurch’s art better than hers, too, although both of them suffer from a paucity of backgrounds. I think Upchurch also does the colors, and I think his lines would be better served by brighter colors.

So the series has gotten off to a strong start, but I’m hoping Wiebe and Upchurch have plans to develop it beyond the humor and fighting. For example, we don’t have a strong sense of the main characters beyond Betty, and a series of escapades is going to get repetitive quickly. There’s a lot of potential in the characters and the set-up here, and I hope they’ll develop it, because that will be the difference between being an enduring series and being just an amusing diversion.

David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas

My alternate name for Cloud Atlas is “six stories in search of a novel”. It’s a series of six novelettes, each one nested inside the previous one. The six are ordered chronologically from the 19th century to the future, but each one is interrupted in the middle so the next one can begin. Moreover, the previous one appears in some form (usually as a book or film) which the characters in the next one encounter. Once the sixth story runs to completion, the stories unwind with each previous one being resumed and running to its end.

As a structure wonk, this intrigued me: What sort of larger story is Mitchell telling here? How can he wrap everything up when the end of the book is chronologically the earliest story? And the answer is: There is no larger story, and each story is effectively discrete from the others. The structure is merely a gimmick, and the book would have been perhaps only marginally less effective had the six stories been told in their entirety in sequence (mainly because the cliffhangers in several stories make you look forward to getting back to it).

So the structure was very disappointing. The movie Memento raises similar questions due to its structure, but uses its backwards-running format to great advantage rather than as a trick. (If you haven’t seen Memento, do so. You could argue it’s Christopher Nolan’s best film and I’m not sure I’d disagree.)

Not that the stories in Cloud Atlas themselves are without interest, but some reviewers’ claims I’ve read that Mitchell is writing each story in a different style are, to my mind, overblown. With perhaps the exception of the last story, which takes place in the far future, all of the stories seem clearly written by the same person, with very minor – if any – stylistic differences. It’s nothing like Dan Simmons’ Hyperion when it comes to showing off writing chops.

Considering the six stories on their own, the last one, “Sloosh’a Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ after” is the best one, occurring in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii where humans are trying to survive, and a ship with advantage technology comes by every so often. I’m a sucker for these settings, and Mitchell portrays this one very well, without even making the affected English of the characters annoying. And the ending is satisfying, too. The earliest stories – about an American notary touring the South Pacific and a disowned would-be composer in 1930s Europe – are the least satisfying (which makes the novel’s ending even more frustrating). The other three stories are all enjoyable enough, but nothing special, I felt. For the most part I found them enjoyable stories but not particularly notable, so I have little to say about them.

I’ve read reviews about thematic connections among the stories, but I think those connections are pretty weak, and at best fairly obvious observations about common characteristics of human nature. And the book makes so much out of its structure that it suffers a serious blow in that it doesn’t really do anything substantive with that structure.

All things considered, I’m not sorry I read it, but I can’t really recommend it, especially to anyone interested in it from a science fiction perspective. There’s probably a great novel to be made out of this structure and approach, but this isn’t it.

Webcomics I Read (2013 Edition)

It felt like this was going to be a skimpy entry this year, until I actually sat down and drew up the list of webcomics I started reading since last year, and there are quite a few of them! Some of them are brand new and I still don’t have a feel for them, while others already feel like I’ve been reading them forever. Lots of variety in the webcomicsphere these days!

You can find my past entries here: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012.

For the tl;dr folk, the strips I would recommend from this batch are Connie to the Wonnie, My So-Called Secret Identity, Namesake, Nimona and Ultrasylvania. Some brand-new strips that I’m looking forward to are AHTspace, Maralinga and Rock and Tin.

  • AHTSpace, by Paige Halsey Warren: “Rampaige” was the creator of Busty Girl Comics (which ended its run a year ago), and this year she launched AHTspace, about an assortment of twenty something artists sharing studio space. Drama! Crushes! Humor! The first loose arc of the strip is just about done, in which the characters get gathered and we learn a little about them, but where it goes from here anyone knows. The art is more polished than in BGC (to be fair, I think Warren always felt the earlier strip was just sketches, not finished work), and it’s a promising start.
  • Anything About Nothing, by Kelly Angel: Gag-a-day humor, sometime off-color, art is decent, no continuity. If you enjoy strips like Internet Webcomic (see below) and Savage Chickens then you’ll probably like this. For me, it hasn’t yet distinguished itself from the competition, and it revels a little too much in its irreverence. (I have the same problem with Cyanide and Happiness.)
  • Ava’s Demon, by Michelle Czajkowski: In the future, a girl named Ava is haunted by a malicious apparition only she can see, but which sometimes forces her to do wicked things. No, it’s not split personality, there’s something really going on here. Digitally illustrated in panels of the same size (you only view on at a time), this is a long-form science fantasy yarn which is already pretty far in, but clearly still has a long way to go. The art style is not quite to my taste (sort of like Dresden Codak with more manga influence and less polish), but it’s growing on me.
  • Blindsprings, by Kadi Fedoruk: A fantasy yarn about a girl who lives in the forest and refuses to go when a boy tries to take her away. It’s just starting up and there are ominous rumblings about why exactly the girl lives there. The art seems to have influences of manga, Disney, and celtic stylings – perhaps a little too cartoony for my tastes in a serious strip. Otherwise, I’m sticking with it to see how it develops.
  • Cat and Girl, by Dorothy Gambrell: A friend of mine introduced me to this strip by asking me about the strip “The Unreliable Narrator”, which I found very clever. Unfortunately I haven’t really been able to connect to the strip otherwise; it’s very metatextual, and not particularly funny. Maybe I’m just not interested in spending that much think-time per strip to enjoy each one of them, but I have tried and it generally hasn’t been my thing.
  • Completely Serious Comics, by Jesse: Simply-drawn gag-a-day strip, sometimes leaning towards being profound or shocking rather than funny. I think “Ghosts” was the first strip I read, and it’s one of the better ones. Otherwise I’m lukewarm towards the strip as a whole.
  • Connie to the Wonnie, by Connie Sun: Another one for the slice-of-life/gag-a-day bucket, but this (semi?-)autobiographical strip about its Asian-American creator is charming and one of my favorite finds of the year. Mainly, because it’s got heart.
  • The Firelight Isle, by Paul Duffield: Duffield illustrated FreakAngels from Warren Ellis’ scripts, and he’s a superb artist. This new strip is all his own work; it’s just begun and appears to update only every few weeks. I believe it’s going to be a YA coming-of-age story in a fantasy world without any actual fantastical elements, and honestly I have a hard time warming to such settings (it’s why I’ve basically stopped reading the Game of Thrones series after the second volume – not enough fantastical content). So I’m reading it solely on the strength of Duffield’s past work, but so far without much enthusiasm. If I drop it, I think it’ll be just because it’s not my cup of tea, because it looks beautiful.
  • Hinges, by Meredith McClaren: An ambitious strip about a young woman named Orio who wakes up in a city named Cobble, in which everyone appears to be artificial. She bonds with an “odd” (apparently an imp or animal attached to a person) named Bauble, which leads to some degree of trouble. The strip was immediately intriguing on first reading, but I feel like the story is both a bit slow and a bit too intricate for its own good, as I often scratch my head trying to figure out what the emotional hook is – Olio is quite a cipher so it’s hard to relate to her, but she’s unequivocally the center of the story. The art is simple but very good, but I wish it would move along a little more. I think it’s similar to Jason Brubaker’s Remind in many respects.
  • Internet Webcomic, by Mary H. Tanner: A cat-oriented gag-a-day strip with an erratic update schedule, and loosely based on its creator’s day-to-day life. I like it a little better than Anything About Nothing (above), but I’m not bowled over. Seems to update erratically.
  • Love Me Nice, by Amanda Lafrenais: Soap opera strip about humans and cartoon animals living in the same world, not unlike Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with stronger themes of relationships and sexual undertones. Very well drawn (and gets better as it goes along), but the story is a bit meandering. Updates irregularly, as it’s a labor of love and the artist has other work that pays the bills.
  • Maralinga, by Jen Breach & Douglas Holgate: I think this strip is going to be the winner for strips I discover this year that drive me crazy, because I suspect it’s going to update very infrequently (“We’ll be updating Maralinga with one 10 page chapter every three months”). But the first chapter, which is all that’s up right now, is killer: A girl in the year 2256 is living in the ruins of Melbourne in the ruins of civilization. The artwork looks gorgeous, and I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic stories anyway (c.f. Derelict, which is one of my favorites). The update schedule is gonna hurt, though; one page a week would be preferable.
  • My So-Called Secret Identity, by Will Brooker, Suze Shore & Sarah Zaidan: A superhero comic about an ordinary woman, Cat Daniels, who decides to become a superhero. The daughter of a cop, Cat is smart and sees how things fit together, and she smells something not right among the (with-real-powers) superheroes of her city, and becomes a hero herself to try to figure out what it is. The art is in a realistic style emphasizing the real world (background! clothing!), though not too different from a superhero comic style – in a sense, it looks like a golden age DC comic if those artists had more solid fundamentals. Unfortunately it updates erratically, which can make it hard to get into after a hiatus.
  • Namesake, by Isabelle Melançon & Megan Lavey-Heaton: An epic strip about “namesakes”, people who learn they can travel to fantasy worlds, in particular a young woman named Emma who ends up in Oz as “the newest Dorothy”, but her strong sense of self throws things off a bit since she refuses to fill a specific role. The story is somewhat meandering (there are intrigues in Oz involving some of the principals and their children, digressions into other lands – notably Wonderland – and some larger machinations involving the namesakes and people who want to control or use them), but at times it’s quite good (the sequence where Emma visits a shrine to previous Dorothies is chilling). The art is good, although I find many of the characters’ faces look very similar which can make it hard to follow. I think the strip would be better served with more structure and working through its subplots as a series of stories that come to a close, since keeping everything moving on simultaneously makes it even harder to follow what’s going on.
  • Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson: Possibly the best strip I discovered this year, it’s about Ballister Blackheart, a “super villain” (in a world of high fantasy, albeit with some high tech mixed in) trying to demonstrate that the establishment is actually the corrupt side of his conflict. He’s tilting at windmills until a girl named Nimona hooks up with him; as a shapeshifter she can accomplish a lot, and she has ideas and motivation which Blackheart seems to have run out of. But of course it’s not all as easy as it seems. Snappy and wry writing, and an interesting style. Nimona is I believe nearing the end of its run, so this is a good time to check it out.
  • Perils on Planet X, by Christopher Mills & Gene Gonzales: An adventure strip with a strong Flash Gordon feel, right down to the hero ending up on an alien planet and hooking up with a beautiful space-babe. Honestly it could just be Flash Gordon updated for modern audiences, which makes it enjoyable enough, but it doesn’t go much beyond that, which makes me wonder: Why bother? Gorgeous art, though.
  • Plume, by K. Lynn Smith: Western frontier adventure featuring a young woman being protected by a ghost as she seeks her fortune and to avenge her father. The line work is simple but conveys a lot though the characters’ expressions; not as strong on the backgrounds. The story is intriguing but something about it feels slightly off, perhaps because the characters don’t quite feel real to me. It feels like the story is still just getting underway, though, and if so then there’s plenty of time for it to grow.
  • Rock and Tin, by Tom Dell’Aringa: Known for the long-form strip Marooned (which recently completed and the collection of which I’m reading, as I missed it during its serialization), this is his new strip. It’s really just getting going, and it so far involves a robot and a bird wandering across a landscape until they come across… something. Dell’aringa has a simple but attractive art style, and a whimsical writing approach (which reminds me just a bit of Wesslingsaung). So far so good, and hopefully to only get better.
  • Ultrasylvania, by Jeremy Saliba, Brian Schirmer & a cast of artists: Illustrated by a variety of artists from the Academy of Art University, this concerns an alternate history of Europe in which Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Mummy emerge in the 19th century and become major world leaders. The first volume completed a while back and sets the stage among the three principals, while the second volume is in progress and is taking place in the present day – and some dramatic differences there are after 150 years of influence by immortal supernatural beings. The art ranges from good to iffy, though one could just as easily say the iffy work is just not to my taste. But overall it’s an entertaining and enjoyable story. I’m not sure how long it’s going to run, but it could go for quite a while.
  • You’re All Just Jealous of my Jetpack, by Tom Gauld: Gauld does strips for the Guardian newspaper, and they’re simple line drawings with nonsensical stylings reminiscent of Edward Gorey. I happen to like that sort of thing, but it might not be for everyone.
  • Zen Pencils, by Gavin Aung Than: Cartoons illustrating inspirational quotes, often trying them into a story told through the art and illuminated by the quote. Than has a clean, simply style, but more expressive than (say) Tom Gauld. The quality can be erratic, depending on whether you can connect to the quote, or you feel the story matches the quote. For my money, his best strip is this Roger Ebert one.

The Time of the Doctor

I’m hard-pressed to think of a less distinguished, less inspiring, and just plain less-fun final episode for any of the leads of Doctor Who than “The Time of the Doctor”, this year’s Christmas episode and Matt Smith’s swan song as the eleventh Doctor. While the 1996 TV movie was not great, and I’m no fan of “The Caves of Androzani” (a favorite of many fans for reasons I don’t understand), both of them are better than this mess of a story was.

Spoilers after the cut:

Continue reading “The Time of the Doctor”

Alastair Reynolds: On The Steel Breeze

On The Steel Breeze is the sequel to last year’s Blue Remembered Earth, although you strictly speaking don’t need to read Blue to follow Breeze. It takes place starting in the mid-2300s, so about 200 years after its predecessor. Thanks to life-extension technologies, a few characters from Blue are still around, but the book centers on Chiku Akinya, daughter of Sunday Akinya, one of the two principals of the first book.

Chiku has had herself cloned into three identical persons, memories evened out among them, and who then followed three different paths: Chiku Red flew after their grandmother Eunice’s ship, which had left the solar system at high speed at the end of the first book carrying Eunice on it. Chiku Green travelled aboard the Zanzibar, one of a fleet of starships (hollowed-out asteroids moving at more than 10% of light speed) heading to Crucible, a planet about 25 light years away which has what looked like evidence of alien intelligence on it, in the form of a strange object on its surface called Mandala. And Chiku Yellow stayed on Earth.

Most of the action takes place on Zanzibar, where Chiku Green has risen to a position on the council, but where the fleet is endangered by political turmoil and a more physical possibility that they won’t be able to stop before they fly past Crucible. She contacts Chiku Yellow on Earth who unearths some of the secrets that her sister has suspected, but at significant cost: Something threatens not just the fleet, but possibly every in the solar system as well, and there are surprises waiting at Crucible assuming humans manage to arrive there.

On The Steel Breeze, like its predecessors, is focused more on grand world-building than on clever plotting. The story is more sophisticated than Blue, the first book having disappointed me a bit in its fairly simply “quest” story. Breeze has more nuance in characters – mainly in the fleet – pursuing different agendas that are largely incompatible. Chiku Green makes some large personal sacrifices for what she feels is the good of her ship and her family. The characterizations are not Reynolds’ strong suit, and Chiku seems a bit too calculating in making her decisions. On the other hand Reynolds’ hand at politics is more deft than before.

The pieces of the story involving Chiku Yellow on Earth are the most exciting parts of the book, with a tense adventure on Venus followed by a hair-raising return to Earth. Her character arc is stronger, too, although as her tale fades into the background the closure her story achieves feels a little thin. The storytelling gimmick of telling the tale through the eyes of the two aspects of Chiku is clever in the first half, but doesn’t perhaps serve the characters the best in the second.

Of course there’s the alien presence at Crucible, which is not really the focus of the novel but plays some role at the end. It seems likely that it will be the focus of the third book.

Taken together, the two books feel like a modern take on Heinlein and Clarke styles of the future of humanity, expanding the world-building considerably. They’re very well-crafted works, but they do require some dedication as their pacing seems calculated to emphasize the world-building, and thus they’re not likely to be for everyone. I don’t count them among Reynolds’ best work, but I’m enjoying them so far. I’m hopeful that the next novel will bring a larger leap in technology and ideas content.

The Sandman: Overture #1

The Sandman: Overture #1 of 6, by Neil Gaiman & J.H. Williams III, DC Comics, December 2013

The Sandman: Overture #1 There’s surely no comic less in need of my recommendation than this new installment (“Back After Fifteen Years!”) of Neil Gaiman’s keynote fantasy series. But The Sandman: Overture #1 was the standout comic this week.

I was generally a big fan of the original series (I only say “generally” because I actually dropped it about six issues in, after the death-in-the-diner issue, and picked it up again with “Dream of a Thousand Cats”; also, I felt that “The Kindly Ones” was hecka padded. But it had many truly excellent stories, and worked superbly as a grand arc), so I was a bit skeptical of Overture being a prequel to the series, explaining what led to Dream being captured in the first issue of the original series. Indeed, we see many elements in this first issue which were revealed only over time in the original series (and, thus, Overture is a poor starting point for people who haven’t read the original), some of which are portents of plot threads which would be resolved in the original (a lengthy sequence with The Corinthian, for example).

But there’s also an undercurrent of mystery, as Dream senses something wrong in the universe, and then in the final scene Gaiman throws a curve, showing that Overture isn’t just going to walk through territory we’ve been through before, but that there are new things to discover – big things – back here in The Sandman‘s past. It was exactly where this story needed to go, as trying to extend a “complete unto itself” magnum opus is a tough feat. (And recall that the few Sandman stories published since the series’ conclusion have been asides, pieces filling out the universe as it were, and not ones that tackled the main character’s story head-on.)

Joining Gaiman is artist J.H. Williams III, who is certainly one of the best renderers in comics today. Where his work often falls down, for me, is in layouts and storytelling, which I often find hard to follow. (His Batwoman had this problem in spades.) While I’m a fan of innovative layouts, they should never compromise telling a coherent story. Fortunately, he adopts a much more straightforward approach here (possibly prompted by Gaiman’s script, I don’t know), and consequently we can happily enjoy the pretty pictures. Williams also supplies the lovely primary cover (an alternate cover is by original series regular cover artist Dave McKean, whose work I’ve never warmed to).

Overall it’s a winning combination, and looks to be an excellent series. So if you had some of the same reservations about it that I did, I would say that you should put them aside and check it out.